Allison Harr of Gemmist: “Starting a company is all-consuming”

Starting a company is all-consuming. It’s a never-ending commitment that knows no boundaries or overtime hours. It’s daunting; who wants to fail? It’s hard to be young and want an equally successful personal life and career. A lot of young people, men included, wonder if you can have both — and then you factor in children, and […]

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Starting a company is all-consuming. It’s a never-ending commitment that knows no boundaries or overtime hours. It’s daunting; who wants to fail? It’s hard to be young and want an equally successful personal life and career. A lot of young people, men included, wonder if you can have both — and then you factor in children, and it seems impossible. I was fortunate to have an involved husband, but I also wanted to be there to raise them. I was lucky enough to be able to do so and waited until my kids were a bit older to start Gemma Labs. That was the decision I made, and the right one for me. I couldn’t have juggled my babies with my company, which takes as much work as a baby. I know there are women who do it, but they must be superhuman or have stay-at-home husbands.


As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing, Allison Harr, CEO and Founder of Gemmist, a personalized premium beauty brand, which utilizes a subscription DTC model to streamline and automate your hair care needs. Harr is a Harvard Business School graduate with a background in helping develop some of America’s most trusted brands at companies including Unilever, Clorox and Sun Products. Parent company Gemma Labs Inc. announced the closing of a 2.6 million dollars funding round at the beginning of 2021. The company’s success, which has seen a 380% increase in customer growth from 2019 to 2020, is accredited to Harr, Founder and CEO.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this career path?

My hair story began with years of dog-eared ponytails. By middle school, I desperately wanted bangs. However, I discovered my hair had a natural curl and led to my nickname, “puffball,” and jump-started my search for straighteners. From there, I started highlighting my hair, jumping from sun-kissed locks to themed hat days. Notably, I was mistaken for a local in Stockholm after an especially harsh chemical treatment from a no-name salon in Manhattan. I traded my super-bleached poufs for an all-business bob at Harvard Business School where I decided to pay it forward and help prevent others hair drama.

Long-haired story short, I have lived all over the country and have continued adapting to new hair mistakes. I never found the right products, so I created Gemmist, as a no-nonsense shampoo and conditioner based on real data and science– and not on whimsical recommendations and pretty bottles. I wanted to create a brand for women that truly delivers on its promises. I guess you could say I’m in this to provide products that have your back and don’t call you “Puffball.”

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Where do I start? Our launch packaging was uninspired. It had simple, clean lines that looked pretty in the shower, but didn’t photograph well. The type was small and stagnant, and as a DTC brand, which was leading with visual assets, the story felt flat. It might seem small, but as a brand just starting up, we had to go through a bunch of inventories, because we couldn’t afford to toss it — big mistake. We’re in a much better place now!

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder, but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

Starting a company is all-consuming. It’s a never-ending commitment that knows no boundaries or overtime hours. It’s daunting; who wants to fail? It’s hard to be young and want an equally successful personal life and career. A lot of young people, men included, wonder if you can have both — and then you factor in children, and it seems impossible. I was fortunate to have an involved husband, but I also wanted to be there to raise them. I was lucky enough to be able to do so and waited until my kids were a bit older to start Gemma Labs. That was the decision I made, and the right one for me. I couldn’t have juggled my babies with my company, which takes as much work as a baby. I know there are women who do it, but they must be superhuman or have stay-at-home husbands.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder. Can you explain what you mean?

There are a lot of great businesses that aren’t 1B dollars. But pretty much every VC will tell you that’s what they’re looking for. It makes sense, they’re looking for the next Amazon/Google/Facebook/whatever, to return their fund and then some, but plenty of businesses are very successful that aren’t that size.

If you raise a ton of money trying to get there, you have to make sure you don’t fall into the trap of building a business model that isn’t sustainable. Meaning, you can’t pay absurd sums of money to attract a customer if it would require her to repeat 100 times to pay back that investment. So, chasing the hockey stick by raising “as much money as you can, whenever you can” just doesn’t seem to set up the right incentives.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “3 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

That I’d go grey really quickly! Also…

1) Raising money is really, really hard. And deflating. You can hear over and over again the equivalent of “your baby is ugly,” and that stinks. You have to be linked into a great network, and even then, it’s super tough. Yes, there is a lot of money out there. But most funds only make a limited number of bets, so the odds are bad from the start. And all those hours you are preparing decks, and flying to meetings, and having phone calls, etc. is time you aren’t actually running your business to achieve the goals you’re promising to those investors.

2) You’ll wear more hats that you ever imagined existed. I expected all the marketing and P&L stuff that I knew about when I was working at those large CPG companies, but I wasn’t picturing all the other gaps I’d be plugging like fulfilling orders from my basement during quarantine; replying to customer emails; procuring workers comp insurance; securing safety stock of bottle caps; running background checks on new employees….the list goes on.

3) Every day is a roller coaster. Some of that is due to the “whack a mole” game from to wearing all those different hats. But it’s also just the nature of retail and the rapidly changing world of communicating with consumers. We’ll launch an ad that really drives a ton of sales; then we’ll find out that Fed Ex can’t pick up from our warehouse due to a snow storm; then we’ll get some great feedback on a new product launch; then we’ll find a bug that has prevented anyone from checking out for the past 45 minutes. It’s highs and lows all the time. You have to try to stay calm and even — for your personal sanity and to keep the team focused. Easier said than done for me — it’s my 3rd baby!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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